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Schein’s Three Levels of Culture

Schein’s Three Levels of Culture is a strategic framework that provides a comprehensive understanding of organizational culture. Developed by Edgar Schein, a notable social psychologist, this model breaks down the concept of culture into three distinct levels: artifacts, espoused values, and basic underlying assumptions. These levels are interconnected and influence the behavior and attitudes of individuals within an organization, shaping the overall cultural identity of the organization.

Understanding and applying Schein’s model is crucial for strategic planning. It helps organizations identify their current cultural state, uncover potential cultural conflicts, and guide cultural change. By understanding the three levels of culture, organizations can align their culture with their strategic goals, fostering a conducive environment for success.


Artifacts are the most visible and tangible level of culture. They include any physical, technological, or architectural evidence of culture within an organization. This can range from the organization's physical environment, dress code, and technology, to observable rituals and ceremonies. Artifacts are the manifestations of an organization's culture that can be easily seen, heard, and felt by individuals.

However, while artifacts are easily observable, their interpretation can be challenging. The underlying meaning of artifacts is often obscured because they are influenced by deeper levels of culture. Therefore, to fully understand an organization's culture, one must look beyond artifacts and explore the underlying espoused values and basic assumptions.

Role of Artifacts in Strategic Planning

Artifacts play a significant role in strategic planning. They are the first point of contact for anyone interacting with the organization and thus, create a first impression. For instance, an organization's office layout can reflect its values of collaboration or hierarchy. Therefore, aligning artifacts with strategic goals can help communicate the organization's vision and values to its stakeholders.

Moreover, artifacts can also serve as a tool for cultural change. By altering artifacts, organizations can subtly influence the behavior and attitudes of its members, driving cultural change that aligns with strategic objectives.

Espoused Values

Espoused values are the stated values and rules of behavior in an organization. They are what an organization claims to believe in and can often be found in mission statements, corporate documents, and other formal expressions of what the organization stands for. Espoused values guide the behavior of individuals within the organization and serve as a framework for decision-making.

However, espoused values can sometimes be in conflict with the actual behavior observed within the organization. This discrepancy can lead to cynicism and mistrust among employees, undermining the effectiveness of the organization. Therefore, it is crucial for organizations to ensure that their espoused values align with their actions.

Role of Espoused Values in Strategic Planning

Espoused values are a critical component of strategic planning. They define the organization's identity and provide a sense of direction. By clearly articulating their espoused values, organizations can create a shared understanding among their members, fostering unity and commitment towards strategic goals.

Furthermore, espoused values can also serve as a benchmark for performance. Organizations can measure their success not just in terms of financial results, but also in terms of how well they live up to their espoused values. This can enhance the organization's credibility and reputation, contributing to its long-term success.

Basic Underlying Assumptions

Basic underlying assumptions are the deepest level of culture. They are the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that are deeply ingrained in the organization. These assumptions are typically so well established that they are considered the 'correct' way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Because these assumptions are unconscious and taken for granted, they are often difficult to identify and change. However, they are the most powerful aspect of culture as they influence all actions and decisions within the organization. Therefore, understanding and addressing these assumptions is critical for any cultural change initiative.

Role of Basic Underlying Assumptions in Strategic Planning

Basic underlying assumptions play a pivotal role in strategic planning. They shape the organization's worldview and influence how it responds to strategic challenges. By understanding these assumptions, organizations can uncover deep-seated biases and blind spots that may hinder their strategic planning process.

Moreover, by addressing these assumptions, organizations can drive profound cultural change. This can enable them to adapt to changing environments and achieve their strategic goals more effectively.

Interplay of the Three Levels

The three levels of culture are not standalone entities but are interconnected and influence each other. Artifacts are influenced by espoused values and basic assumptions, espoused values are influenced by basic assumptions, and basic assumptions are reinforced by artifacts and espoused values. This interplay creates a dynamic and complex cultural system within the organization.

Understanding this interplay is crucial for strategic planning. It helps organizations see the big picture and develop holistic strategies that take into account all aspects of culture. By aligning all three levels of culture with their strategic goals, organizations can create a strong and cohesive culture that propels them towards success.

Challenges in Applying Schein’s Model

While Schein’s model provides a comprehensive understanding of culture, applying it in practice can be challenging. One of the main challenges is the difficulty in identifying and changing basic underlying assumptions. As these assumptions are unconscious and deeply ingrained, they are often resistant to change. This can make cultural change initiatives complex and time-consuming.

Another challenge is the potential discrepancy between espoused values and actual behavior. Organizations may claim certain values but act in ways that contradict these values. This can lead to cynicism and mistrust among employees, undermining the effectiveness of the organization. Therefore, organizations need to ensure that their actions align with their espoused values.


Schein’s Three Levels of Culture is a powerful tool for understanding and shaping organizational culture. By providing a comprehensive view of culture, it enables organizations to align their culture with their strategic goals, fostering a conducive environment for success. However, applying this model requires a deep understanding of the complex and dynamic nature of culture, as well as a commitment to aligning actions with espoused values.

Despite the challenges, the benefits of applying Schein’s model are significant. It can enhance the organization's performance, credibility, and reputation, contributing to its long-term success. Therefore, organizations should strive to understand and apply this model in their strategic planning process.

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